Eating out is a major part of urban life, and the return to normalcy has allowed more frequent meetings with friends and family. While enjoying culinary delights, consumers should also pay attention to charge details of restaurants, especially with the increased use of self-ordering systems through QR codes. In fact, complaints related to restaurant transactions on this aspect are frequently found. In 2022 and the first quarter of 2023, the Consumer Council received 1,160 and 330 complaint cases about restaurants respectively, with about 30% involving charge disputes, commonly related to customers being charged service fees without alignment in understanding, and actual charges differing from the price displayed on the menu.
The Council points out that all traders, including restaurants, must inform customers clearly of all prices before transaction, and should not impose any previously undisclosed fees on consumers only at the point of sale, nor should they conceal any charges. At the same time, restaurants should ensure that the menu, ordering system, in-store signage, and promotional material are clear and consistent, and updates should be carried out regularly to ensure accuracy. This includes ensuring that prices are correct and whether a service charge is indicated to avoid unnecessary disputes. In addition, restaurants should also take care of consumers who are unfamiliar with new technology or electronic ordering systems by allowing them to continue placing orders in traditional ways or by providing relevant assistance.
Case 1: Service Charge Not Shown at QR Code Ordering but Added into Bill
The complainant went to Restaurant A for dinner. While ordering through the QR code system, the “service charge” field showed a fee of $0, but at payment the bill indicated “+10% service charge”. The restaurant insisted on the charge, and the complainant had no choice but to pay and later filed a complaint with the Council, requesting a refund of the relevant amount.
Restaurant A replied to the Council that they always charged an additional 10% service fee from 6pm onwards. As their ordering system was recently launched, some settings still needed improvement and the “service charge” was mistakenly not displayed on the order form. Restaurant A stated that they had notified their system supplier to rectify the issue, and they were willing to refund the charge to the customer. The Council reminded Restaurant A that they must display charges prominently on the menu and in-store signage, especially whether a service charge is applicable at different dining times, and to update their ordering system to ensure that customers are clearly informed.
Case 2: Set Meal Price Displayed on Electronic Menu Different from Bill
Restaurant Claimed System Update Pending
The complainant dined at Restaurant B and ordered by scanning the QR code with his mobile phone. The electronic menu displayed a price of $228 per person for a set meal at the time. The complainant ordered 2 sets, in addition to 1 children’s meal and other snacks. The complainant checked the bill after leaving the restaurant and discovered that the 2 set meals were charged $576 in total, i.e. $288 each, $60 more than indicated on the electronic menu. Restaurant staff explained that the correct price was indeed $288 per person and the electronic menu was not updated, apologised, and offered complimentary dessert as compensation. However, the complainant opined that the staff should inform patrons before placing the order, and that the electronic menu showed that it was updated on the day in question, thus refused to accept the staff’s claim that the information was “not updated” as well as their proposed compensation arrangements. The complainant believed that Restaurant B was involved in unscrupulous sales practices and filed a complaint with the Council.
After conciliation by the Council, Restaurant B agreed to refund the difference and 10% service charge, totalling $132. The complainant confirmed the receipt of the refund and the case was resolved.
Case 3: Mandatory Charges Not Displayed on Order Form
$20 Per Person Charged for Hot Water
The complainant and his friend had lunch at Restaurant C, where the friend ordered a $18 cup of hibiscus tea while the complainant, ordering no drink, was served hot water without prompt. At bill settlement, the complainant discovered a charge for “Chinese tea” on the bill, a total of $40 for 2 people. Restaurant staff explained that hot water was classified under “Chinese tea” and thus the charge was correct. The complainant pointed out that although the order form stated that “tea and condiments will be charged”, it is general understanding that “tea and condiments” should include hot tea and sauces, whereas the restaurant staff did not serve any extra sauces. Moreover, as the English version on the order form specified that “prices are excluded condiment fee and tea charge” [sic] where there was no ambiguity in the word “tea”, the complainant suspected that the restaurant was involved in concealment and forced payment. He therefore sought assistance from the Council and demanded a refund of $40 from Restaurant C, and suggested that all items of mandatory charges should be clearly shown on the order form.
Restaurant C responded to the Council that a separate menu was placed at each table and all mandatory charges were stated on the last page, including “Chinese tea/hot water” at $20 per person. The Council pointed out the discrepancy between the order form and the menu and urged Restaurant C to reconsider refunding the complainant. Restaurant C ultimately maintained their decision against a refund, but indicated understanding of the complainant’s grievances and expressed willingness to revise the wording on the order form.
Restaurants should test online systems before introduction and update the system regularly. Restaurants should also ensure that pricing policies, prices and special offers are consistently and correctly displayed, including on menus, dim sum order forms, electronic ordering systems, etc. Otherwise, restaurants may be liable under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance due to incorrect or missing food or price information.
Even if served with excellent food while dining out, it would be really mood damping if price disputes arise. Consumers can heed the following when visiting restaurants:
- Before entering, check with the restaurant about the pricing policy and dining arrangements, including whether there is a minimum charge, time limits on dining, and whether table sharing is practiced. Carefully check the accuracy of the bill before payment. Always retain the receipt for record;
- Many restaurants have introduced customer self-service such as online ordering and self-served tea brewing, which has led some consumers to ponder whether service charges should be reduced or even waived. In fact, the “service charge” covers the entire dining experience, from hospitality of restaurant staff, ordering and delivery of food, to the services provided by the chefs and cleaners, etc. Therefore, restaurants may continue to require a service charge, but it must be prominently and clearly displayed. If patrons have any doubts on the service charges, restaurant staff should explain in detail;
- Some restaurants may charge for tea, condiments and snacks, etc. Consumers can check the menu or signage displayed, or ask staff for details before choosing whether to accept non-mandatory charges accordingly. In addition, confirm if corkage and cake cutting fees will be charged before planning to bring drinks or a cake to restaurants.
Download the article (Chinese only): https://ccchoice.org/559complaints
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